Born in Germany as Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann, Horst studied design and carpentry under the tuition of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School, before moving to Paris to work as an apprentice to architect Le Corbusier. In Paris, he met George Hoyningen-Huene, star photographer at French Vogue. Huene became Horst's mentor, inviting him into the creative world of 1930s Paris.
When Horst joined French Vogue in 1931, Paris was still the world's undisputed centre of high fashion. Photography had begun to eclipse graphic illustration in fashion magazines and the publisher Condé Montrose Nast devoted large sums to improving the quality of image reproduction.
The modelling profession was still in its infancy in the 1930s and many of those who posed under the hot studio lights were stylish friends of the magazine's staff, often actresses or aristocrats.
By the mid 1930s, Horst had superseded his mentor George Hoyningen-Huene as Paris Vogue's primary photographer, after Huene's departure for rival magazine Harper's Bazaar. Horst's images frequently appeared in the French, British and American editions of the magazine.
The Surrealist art movement explored unique ways of interpreting the world, turning to dreams and the unconscious for inspiration. During the 1930s, Surrealism escaped its radical avant-garde roots and transformed design, fashion, advertising, theatre and film.
Horst's photographs of this period feature mysterious, whimsical and surreal elements combined with his classical aesthetic. He created trompe l'oeil still lifes (the fine art tradition of paintings which create the illusion of real objects) photographed the surreal-infused dress designs of his friend Elsa Schiaparelli and collaborated with the artist Salvador Dalí. He shared with the Surrealists a fascination with the representation of the female body, often eroticising the body in his images and hiding parts of the body from view.
His most celebrated photograph of the era is Mainbocher Corset (1939). Decades after the photograph was made, Main Bocher himself expressed his admiration for Horst's virtuosity:
Your photographs are sheer genius and delight my soul … each one is perfect by itself.
Stage and screen
Horst's portraits spanned a wide cross-section of subjects, from artists and writers to presidents and royalty. In the 1930s, he became aware of a new focus for his work. Glamorous Hollywood movie stars were imperceptibly assuming the place left vacant by Europe's vanishing royal families. With the approach of the Second World War, the escapism offered by theatre and cinema gained in popularity. Horst began to photograph this new breed of celebrities, both in costume and as themselves.
The first well-known star Horst photographed was the English performer Gertrude Lawrence, then appearing in Ronald Jeans' play Can the Leopard…? at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Horst's first portrait of a Hollywood actress, Bette Davis, appeared in Vogue's sister magazine Vanity Fair in 1932.
Fashion in colour
The 1930s ushered in huge technical advancements in colour photography. Horst adapted quickly to a new visual vocabulary, creating some of Vogue's most dazzling colour images. In 1935 he photographed the Russian Princess Nadejda Sherbatow in a red velveteen jacket for the first of his many Vogue cover pictures.
The occupation of Paris during the Second World War transformed the world of fashion. The majority of French ateliers closed and many couturiers and buyers left the country. Remaining businesses struggled with extreme shortages of cloth and other supplies. The scarcity of French fashions in America, however, enabled American designers to come into their own. Horst and many of his friends fled Paris for New York. The photographer became an American citizen in 1943, changing his surname from Bohrmann to Horst.
'Patterns from Nature'
The photographs in Horst's second book, Patterns from Nature (1946), show a new direction from the high glamour of his fashion and celebrity photographs. These close-up, black and white images of plants, shells and minerals were taken in New York's Botanical Gardens, in the forests of New England, in Mexico, and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
This personal project was partly inspired by photographs of plants by Karl Blossfeldt (1865 – 1932). Horst was struck by "their revelation of the similarity of vegetable forms to art forms like wrought iron and Gothic architecture". Horst's interest was also linked to the technical purity of 'photographic seeing', a philosophy associated with the New Objectivity movement of the 1920s and 1930s in which practitioners took natural forms out of their contexts and examined them with such close attention that they became unfamiliar and revelatory.
During the 1940s Horst worked primarily in the Condé Nast studio on the 19th floor of the Graybar Building, an Art Deco skyscraper on Manhattan's Lexington Avenue. The busy studio was well equipped with a variety of lights and props and Horst worked closely with talented art director Alexander Liberman. Like Horst, he had found refuge in the artistic circles of Paris and New York, and enjoyed a long career with Condé Nast.
By 1946 dressing the American woman had become one of the country's largest industries, grossing over six billion dollars a year. The staff of Vogue expanded accordingly. In 1951 Horst found a studio of his own, the former penthouse apartment of artist Pavel Tchelitchew, with high ceilings and a spectacular view over the river. Horst developed a new approach to photography in response to the abundance of daylight and for a time his famous atmospheric shadows disappeared.
Living in style
In 1947 Horst acquired five acres of land in Oyster Bay Cove, Long Island, part of the estate once owned by the designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. On the land he described as "everything I had ever dreamed of", Horst built a unique house and landscaped garden. His future partner Valentine Lawford visited for the first time in 1947, along with Noël Coward, Christopher Isherwood and Greta Garbo. It was the beginning of a relationship with Horst that would last until Lawford's death in 1991.
They welcomed many friends and visitors to Long Island, including the editor Diana Vreeland, who had left Harper's Bazaar for Vogue in 1962 and soon put the couple to work on Vogue's 'Fashions in Living' pages. The homes and tastes of everyone from Jackie Onassis to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Andy Warhol and Karl Lagerfeld featured in their articles. Horst's creative chemistry with Vreeland brought him a new lease of life.
In the summer of 1949, Horst journeyed to the Middle East together with Lawford, then a diplomat at the British Embassy in Tehran. They travelled by road from Beirut to Persepolis, where Horst was able to photograph parts of the ancient Persian city that had only recently been uncovered. Afterwards, Horst visited the newly established State of Israel on a photographic assignment for Vogue.
Horst returned to the Middle East in the spring of 1950. He spent a week with Lawford at the relatively remote south-eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, before documenting the annual migration of the Qashqa'i clan. Horst and Lawford were invited by Malik Mansur Khan Qashqa'i to spend ten days with his tribe as they travelled by camel and horse, in search of vegetation for their flocks.
In the early 1950s Horst produced a set of distinctive photographs unlike much of his previous work. These male figure studies were exhibited for the first time in Paris in 1953 and reprinted using the platinum-palladium process in the 1980s.
The studies highlight Horst's sense of form, emphasising the idealised human body, using light and shadow. Monumental and anonymous nudes resemble classical sculptures.
Horst takes the inert clay of human flesh and models it into the decorative shapes of his own devising. Every gesture of his models is planned, every line controlled and coordinated to the whole of the picture. Some gestures look natural and careless, because carefully rehearsed; the others, like Voltaire's god, were invented by the artist because they did not exist.
The 1980s witnessed a flurry of new books, exhibitions and television documentaries about Horst. He produced new prints for museums and the collector's market, selecting works from every decade of his career to be reprinted in platinum-palladium, sometimes with new titles. This was a complex and expensive technique, employing metals more expensive than gold. Failing eyesight finally forced him to stop working in 1992.
His style had seen a renaissance in 1978 when Francine Crescent, French Vogue's editor in chief, had invited him to photograph the Paris collections. Horst's work for her echoed his atmospheric, spot-lit studies of the 1930s. His use of the platinum process both for creating new and reproducing early works ensured his mastery of light, mood and composition would be enjoyed by a new audience.
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